When you think about tile countertops, what probably leaps to mind are the ubiquitous small squares separated by thick grout lines that you tore out of your last kitchen or master bath when you remodeled those spaces. They were a pain to clean, not particularly attractive (unless you were doing a retro project and love pink or seafoam vintage style), and you were thrilled to get rid of them.
You might have replaced those surfaces with granite if you renovated in the decade before the housing crash, or with engineered stone, (also referred to as quartz and sold under brand names like Silestone and Caesarstone), if you’ve done so more recently. So it might surprise you to learn that tile countertops are making a tremendous comeback, but not in any way that you’ve seen them before. It’s kind of like the design world’s version of Clark Kent becoming Superman.
Features and benefits
What has emerged from the tile scene – especially from factories in Spain, Italy and Tennessee – are oversized porcelain slabs that look like granite, marble, wood, linen or just about any other natural material you could want – with none of their maintenance issues or usage restrictions. Like competitive quartz and solid surface (e.g., Corian) materials, porcelain slab tops are nonporous, so they’re a safe and healthy option for food preparation. Unlike those two materials, however, porcelain can be installed outside and is both heat- and frost-tolerant for homes across the country.
“One of the best things about porcelain is that it can be used everywhere,” says Sacramento-based designer Kerrie Kelly. “It is ideal for kitchens and bathrooms with its stain, heat and water resistance. It is also perfect for outdoor applications and eliminates the worry of sun damage, as it is completely UV resistant. Large format tiles have been very popular for both kitchen and bath and our installers are happy when we specify the product.”
Porcelain is an extremely hard surface that isn’t prone to the etching, staining and other damage that daily household life can inflict on natural marble, but it can be manufactured with comparable beauty, thanks to inkjet production technologies. Unlike marble (or granite), however, each porcelain slab is uniform, so you don’t have to take time off from work to visit a stone yard to choose your remodeling project’s slabs. If you’re opting for a marble look – which is one of the most popular porcelain styles in use for both kitchens and bathrooms right now – you’ll be able to continue a vein across a wide wall or cabinet bank with book matched slabs for a traditional upscale look.
Jennifer Quail, editor-in-chief of i+D Magazine, the American Society of Interior Designers’ official publication, just returned from Cersaie, Italy’s massive tile expo, where many of the slabs were on display. What she saw, along with the 112,339 other industry pros from around the world who attended, was acres of thin porcelain tile extending from countertops into other facets of display rooms for seamless style. “We saw full islands that used porcelain slabs on all sides creating an almost monolithic look; complete spa-like bathrooms where walls, floors, and integrated tubs were all conceived with large format slabs, and also the use of large format pieces for dining tabletops.”
Costs and challenges
“The costs of porcelain countertops are comparable to that of quartz, but typically come in slightly higher because of their fragile nature and rather difficult fabricating process,” Kelly says. Another cost contributor is the sometime scarcity of local skill and expertise. Not including special features, porcelain slab countertops can range from $60 to $100 per square foot, according to CounterTop Guides. “Because porcelain countertops are still fairly new to the U.S. market, finding a fabricator that has experience with the product can prove to be difficult. Porcelain, while extremely durable once installed, is very fragile during the fabricating process and can easily be chipped or cracked, which also makes finding an experienced fabricator highly important.”
Vancouver, Canada-based Ryan Fasan, a ceramics industry consultant and trainer for Tile of Spain, sees the skill issue going away soon. “Anyone certified to install stone or manufactured quartz is qualified to install porcelain slabs,” he notes. “The methodology is the same,” he says, but adds that porcelain is a safer material for fabricators to handle.
There are some production limitations at the moment, though, Fasan explains. “Complex edge profiles (like ogee) are not possible in ceramics as they are in stone. Only eased (square) edges are possible.” He sees technology expanding to facilitate more edging options in the next year or two.
As ASID’s Quail noted, you can clad walls, cabinetry, furniture and other surfaces in porcelain slab to extend its style, durability and livability to the rest of your space. You can also create an integral sink, which many designers are doing in kitchens and bathrooms for their look and ease of use.
More recently, a few manufacturers have started offering integrated induction burners into their porcelain slab countertops. These can be custom placed in the particular areas of the counter where a homeowner wants to cook, creating the sleekest cooking surface imaginable.
“Anytime we can have a seamless, low maintenance installation for a client, it is appreciated. Gone are the days of cleaning grout with a toothbrush,” muses Kelly. You’d probably agree!